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We need to hold Britain's racist banking system to account

July 13, 2023 at 11:15 am

Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage travels on the pro-Brexit ‘Leave Means Leave’ battle bus ahead of the ‘Leave Means Rally’ at the Rivera International Centre on October 13, 2018 in Torquay, England [Matt Cardy/Getty Images]

If you live in the Middle East, Asia or Africa you’ve probably never heard of Nigel Farage; if so, count yourself lucky. He is a prime example of white privilege; a truly obnoxious individual whose hateful words whip up racism across Britain.

My enduring memory of this repugnant, right-wing politician is of him grinning like a village idiot in front of a giant mobile advertising hoarding showing a bleak photograph of desperate, olive-skinned refugees bearing the headline “BREAKING POINT, The EU has failed us all”. The inference was that these refugees were heading for Britain but the problem would disappear overnight if the UK left the European Union. For many people, Farage was Mr Brexit.

Grinning like the fictional Cheshire Cat, he appealed to the electorate to vote “Leave” and take the UK out of the EU. His vile message was clear and appealed to every racist in the country. Not every voter in Britain is a racist, of course, but enough of them followed his lead for Farage’s Brexit wishes to be fulfilled, and it has been more or less downhill for the country ever since.

Mission accomplished, Farage has remained largely on the fringe of British politics, popping up now and again to stir the racist pot when needed. Towards the end of 2022, for example, he was in a video on Twitter claiming that London, Birmingham and Manchester are all “now minority white cities.” Farage was wrong but, as a host on GB News TV channel, he wasn’t going to let the facts get in the way of what he saw as a good anti-refugee story.

The latest Farage brouhaha is a row over free speech which has embroiled Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Normally I would not give the oxygen of publicity to this attention-seeking martinet — Farage, not Sunak — but the latest headlines and media outrage left me seething.

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The former leader of the UK Independence Party revealed last week that his personal and business bank accounts had been closed suddenly. He claimed that this was an act of revenge for Brexit by the “Establishment”.

As Farage vented his spleen at the banking industry, Sunak jumped into the argument to admonish British banks and insist that they must not close accounts for political reasons. Within hours the episode escalated into a row over freedom of speech.

“Well, welcome to the world of Muslims,” I bellowed angrily at my TV. Followers of my website know that my favourite charity is Interpal, which has raised funds and awareness heroically for Palestine and Palestinians for almost three decades. It is a miracle that it still has charitable status after Zionist attacks of tsunami proportions over the years. A number of banks have, as a result, closed its accounts one by one

Interpal aid worker [file photo]

Interpal aid worker [Interpal/Twitter]

Back in 2020, banking giant HSBC pulled the rug even further from under Interpal’s feet by refusing to honour its customers’ standing order payments to the charity. Without such banking facilities — and now without any bank accounts — Interpal finds it impossible to collect charitable donations directly. HSBC’s cruel blow came during Ramadan in that year — a prime time for charitable giving in the Muslim community — and was quickly followed up by my outraged colleague and right-wing journalist Peter Oborne, who had exposed the bank — one of the world’s largest — in 2014 and 2015 for closing the accounts of prominent British-based Muslim customers, without explanation, and withdrawing banking facilities from a number of community organisations and leaders. Try as he might to get the story published he came up against a brick wall. Eventually, this became a resigning issue for him when he realised that the Telegraph newspaper where he worked was never going to give space to articles critical of HSBC. His article went on to be published in Open Democracy.

Very few British politicians showed an interest at the time apart from Labour’s Andy Slaughter and the former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. However, the Farage fiasco had Downing Street “concerned” along with politicians from the highest levels of government including HM Treasury. All were demanding to know if the banks were being overzealous in closing certain accounts simply because they didn’t like someone’s political views. “Free speech within the law and the legitimate expression of differing views is an important part of British liberty,” insisted Sunak’s official spokesperson. At this point the Treasury was already investigating whether the banks’ current framework “strikes the right balance between the rights of a bank customer to express themselves freely and the right of a bank to manage commercial risks.” Within 24 hours, culture secretary Lucy Frazer said she was “concerned that people’s bank accounts might be closed for the wrong reasons.”

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Suddenly, financial institutions were starting to listen to government warnings when previously they had blithely ignored the likes of Jeremy Corbyn who was demanding to know why Finsbury Park Mosque within his constituency had its account closed, again without warning or explanation.

It’s obvious to me that racism in Britain isn’t restricted to certain white communities; institutional racism is rife in Britain. Moreover, very few journalists or politicians cared when Muslims were targeted by bank closures ten years ago. Their reaction to the closure of Farage’s accounts was thus truly shocking.

Tone deaf to similar complaints from the Muslim community, Farage used his megaphone diplomacy to complain that he was a victim of “serious political persecution”, claiming that British banks are “part of the big corporate structures who did not want Brexit to happen.” I doubt that the closure of his account caused a sleepless night in the Farage household, despite the temporary difficulties it might cause, but closing a charity’s access to funding is a matter of life or death for beneficiaries facing unimaginable hardship.

The good news is that the banks will now have to provide more information on the decision-making process behind account closures, and will offer a longer notice period. This compromise is apparently a direct result of Farage’s complaint. There is also an underlying threat that financial watchdogs and regulators will act if rules are not followed.

“No one should have their bank account denied on the grounds of freedom of expression,” said a senior Treasury source. “We expect to take action on this issue within weeks.”

Meanwhile, Farage said that the “only explanation” he could think of for his bank’s decision was a claim made by senior Labour MP Chris Bryant in the Commons that the former Brexit Party leader had received almost £550,000 from the television network Russia Today.

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Such issues can be very murky, but this one is clear enough for us to know that as long as Britain’s media and corporate establishments, including the banks, are institutionally racist, freedom of speech and democracy will only be truly available to privileged white people like Nigel Farage. The rest of us, especially Muslims — and especially Muslims who stand up for the people of Israeli-occupied Palestine — must live with the knowledge that our bank accounts can and quite possibly will be closed for no apparent reason and at very short or no notice; and that we cannot expect for one moment that the prime minister and senior Treasury officials will leap to our defence. Trust me on this one. You can bank on it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.